Positive psychology is a study of the mind in relation to well-being and happiness. Without dismissing the more serious health issues that a person could potentially face, the main purpose of this approach is to develop a better understanding of what makes life worth living for the average person, as well as the individual.
It is a call to psychological practice and science to pay attention to our strengths as well as our weaknesses.
While traditional psychology remains a crucial aspect of diagnosis and treatment, the positive approach aims to provide a more holistic and integrative process by taking into account such things as aspiration, desire, emotion, spirituality, relationship, family, career, and personal quest.
A positive approach to our state of mind is to expand on what drives us in the right direction as opposed to simply fixing what may be holding us back along the way. Positive psychology emphasizes how ordinary life can be transformed into a more fulfilling and happier one.
Maslow’s Pyramid Theory
In Abraham Maslow’s exploration of human needs, the process of self-actualization was developed and introduced as a pyramid of personal growth. Reaching the tip of this pyramid refers to the realization of optimal potential as a human being.
In Maslow’s theory proposed in his 1943 paper entitled "A Theory of Human Motivation", he indicates that in order for someone to make positive progress towards the top of this pyramid, each level must be fulfilled before a higher one can be addressed.
Each phase of growth represents an essential need. Once the base needs are satisfied, the higher needs can be integrated until the optimal experience is accomplished. The final stage is where we find true happiness, euphoria, content, and purpose — accompanied by a lasting sense of fulfillment and well-being.
The root of this pyramid is where we will find our most essential need. Without our physiological needs being satisfied, it becomes impossible to make progress. This need represents the necessary health and function of our physical body. In order to survive at a very base level we need water, oxygen, nutrients, and shelter.
Safety and Security
The next base level of the pyramid represents the human need to be safe and secure. This need takes priority over behavioral needs. In the past, circumstances that would have most threatened one’s safety would include wild animals, famine, human warfare, and natural disaster.
As these concerns still exist as a very real threat, for the modern human being, our fear for safety might also come in the form of job loss, economic struggle, insurance policies, finance, or even issues concerning personal health.
Love and Belonging
Once we have developed a sense of safety and security, we can move on to the higher need of social connection. This need is satisfied through family, relationship, acceptance, love, and friendship.
As humans, we seek connection at a deep level and require a sense of family and community — either big or small — not to survive, but to thrive and grow as individuals.
We all have amazing potential inside of us and this is the stage in our life where other people can help us discover who we truly are, and what makes us laugh and smile.
Maslow describes two forms of esteem: “lower” and “higher”. The lower version is generated by external factors such as status, attention, fame, recognition, and title. The higher esteem is satisfied through internal forces such as personal accomplishment, mastery, goal setting, inspired action, freedom, and personal strength.
Both higher and lower esteem could be met in order to gain the confidence to move on to the next phase of personal growth. However, the higher aspect of self-esteem is crucial, as it requires the internal qualities of assurance to move forward independent of external force.
This is the human drive to become something greater than ever thought possible. This is the realization of one’s potential. Reaching this phase, while satisfying the lower needs along the way, will carry different meaning for different people.
But attaining self actualization is the feeling of fulfillment, appreciation for life, and a vibrant sense of well-being. This does not necessarily signify money or success, but more so a sense of vitalizing love for life and greater meaning.
Once we have achieved this sense of fulfilment in our existence, we are better suited to spread meaning and bring value to our relationships and into our community. This is where we often see successful personalities or high achievers develop the need to give back to society by taking part in such activity as philanthropy and meaningful charity work.
After years of exploring his theory, Maslow introduced the concept of self-transcendence as a further dimension of the pyramid. Once someone has attained self-actualization, they are able to discover a transcending quality of life– an enhanced understanding, and something greater than themselves.
In some cultures this is described as enlightenment or spiritual awakening. Maslow presents this stage of transcendence as one's pursuit to something outside of oneself, for a more profound purpose and connection to the bigger picture of life.
Maslow's theory of human need is very popular both in and out of psychology, but has also seen some critisizism–mainly based on how the hiearchy is arranged. In a study published in 2011, researchers from the University of Illinois set out to put the hierarchy to the test.
Optimal Experience and Flow State
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist. He is well known for his development of the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state. Mihaly said that the best moments that happen in our lives are not the receptive, passive and relaxing times, but the moments when a person’s mind and body are stretched to their limits in voluntary efforts to accomplish something difficult and worth the struggle.
This elite state is common in high performance creative artists, and athletes; but can also be attributed to such things as business, education, volunteer work, spiritual practice, etc.; anything that inspires motivation and passion.
During flow state, the average mind is transcended, during which concerns that would normally occupy the mind (time, anxiety, worry, ego, money, stress, etc.) seem to dissipate and are typically ignored.
During this state of “optimal experience” we feel alert, strong, confident, highly optimistic, in effortless control, and at the crescendo of our abilities. Flow is striking the perfect balance between setting meaningful pursuits, while facing challenge along the way.
In his book “The Psychology of Optimal Experience” Mihaly states that happiness is not a fixed state of affairs but can be developed as we learn to incorporate flow into our lives. Mihaly insists, however, that the attainment of happiness does not simply happen. There is the need for preparation and cultivation by setting objectives that are neither too simple nor too demanding for one's abilities.
The set goal for a person to attain should be big enough to be worth fighting for; which is slightly bigger than the goals that we would normally set for ourselves, and maybe even slightly out of our comfort zone.
This will help us push through tough times in chase of the worthy pursuit. It is through this difficult push that we can realize flow state. This is why it is so common for a marathon runner to report feeling “superhuman” strength on the last stretch of the race.
With the tremendous growth that has been experienced in psychology regarding the dynamics of human experience, these central theories continue to evolve. We often experience flow and optimal experience through bursts of inspiration and high levels of optimism. If you pay attention, you will notice that these instances are accompanied by the drive to pursue a greater version of life.
This is the human drive; something that pushes us from the inside out, and something that can easily become lost for periods at a time is our most basic needs are left unmet.
Achieving flow and self-actualization should be perceived as an exciting journey, with moments of clarity and intense focus providing us with the essential clues to point us in the right direction–towards what truly makes us happy as individuals.
Once we can maintain our course and cultivate flow into our daily lives, we can generate meaning and integrate inspiration. It is from this state of mind that we become fully equipped to create positive change within ourselves and ultimately the world that we occupy as connected beings.